Medically Unfit Truck Drivers Cause Accidents

Physical impairment of the truck driver is a leading cause of crashes involving large commercial trucks. Physical impairment may include fatigue or any number of medical conditions. Unfortunately, a loop-hole allows medically unfit truck drivers to continue driving.

Federal law requires that truck drivers undergo a medical exam every two years; however, under current law, virtually any medical professional (including chiropractors and nurse practitioners) can sign off on the medical exam. Furthermore, a 2008 congressional investigation revealed that one out of three medical certificates examined in roadside stops cannot be verified; the doctors either don’t exist or deny every examining the truck driver.

Government websites supply blank medical certificates, and there’s nothing stopping drivers from filling out the certificates themselves. They can simply look up a doctor’s name in the phone book, look up the doctor’s medical license number on the internet, and sign the certificate themselves.

“Because so few attempts are made to authenticate a certificate, there is little risk that a driver will be caught if he or she forges or adulterates a certificate,” the study reported.

One Ohio doctor interviewed by a House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee in 2008 revealed that forgery of medical certificates by truck drivers is so commonplace “no one gets alarmed by it anymore.”

Currently, there is no electronic database for truck drivers’ medical certificates. They’re just pieces of paper, so law enforcement officers have no way to check whether they’re valid or forged. Most officers don’t have time to call the doctor listed on the certificate - and even if they do, medical privacy laws prevent doctors from revealing anything about a patient’s condition without a waiver. Additionally, the fines for driving without a medical certificate is very low, and the truck driver can keep driving.

The congressional investigation also found that more than 560,000 truck drivers are currently receiving full medical disability benefits! These medically unfit drivers should not be operating a deadly piece of equipment.

Federal laws are about to change - but not soon enough. In December 2008, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) issued a mandate that requires all states to merge medical cards with commercial drivers licenses into one electronic record. However, states have three years to implement the new system. In the meantime, truck drivers can continue to forge medical cards will no real threat of getting caught and virtually no penalties if they are caught. In 2006, the Transportation Department issued over seven million commercial citations for violating federal medical rules, but these citations didn’t change anything.

Each year, hundreds of deaths occur after a medically unfit truck driver passes out or has a heart attack behind the wheel. In 2006, a University of Pennsylvania Medical School study found that 28 percent of truck drivers have some form of sleep apnea, nearly 5 percent of truck drivers have severe sleep apnea, and 13 percent of truck drivers get fewer than five hours of sleep on a regular basis. The study concluded that “there are daytime neurobehavioral performance impairments that are found commonly in commercial drivers, and these are more likely among those who get an average of five or less hours of sleep a night and those who suffer from severe obstructive sleep apnea.”

Last year’s congressional hearing highlighted the following cases of medically unfit truck drivers:

- A gasoline tanker driver had a heart attack while driving, and his truck went of an overpass and killed four people in Maryland.

- A Virginia driver continues to drive tanker trucks even though he lacks the proper paperwork.

- A diabetic truck driver had a diabetic episode that caused him to crash on the interstate. The truck accident killed four women in Missouri. The truck driver’s employer ended up paying $18 million in a tort settlement.

How can this be happening? In part, it's because of the Americans with Disabilities Act. In the past, the FMCSA did not approve licenses for people with missing limbs, diabetes, or sleep disorders. But the Diabetes Association protested, arguing that people with diabetes should be able to keep driving as long as they’re under a doctor’s care. The problem is, obviously, that many truck drivers are not actually under a doctor’s care.

Be careful on the highway. If you are injured in a tractor trailer truck accident, call 404.531.9700 to schedule your free consultation. We'll put our experience to work for you.